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Fire Budget Cuts Deep
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Coming in with a budget of more than $1.1 million, the figure is lower than last year for the Escalon Consolidated Fire Protection District but the biggest change is the loss of a key position.

Administrative assistant Donna Fourre's post was eliminated in the new fiscal year budget, falling victim to the financial crunch. She had been with the department for the past several years, handling a variety of duties from report filing to payroll to preparing budget documents. Now, her work is being spread out among many others in the department.

"Our goal was to maintain our operating levels," Fire Chief Rick Mello said, noting the board had hoped to avoid any staff cuts. "It was a tough, emotional decision for the board and for me."

The department has three shifts, maintaining 24-hour coverage at the station and that staffing level was not impacted. There are three battalion chiefs, and each has two firefighters working the shift with him to make up a three-man coverage crew. In addition to those crews is the chief and, up until this year, the administrative assistant. Staffing levels for station coverage will remain the same and Mello said as of July 2, the department is considered "fully staffed" with firefighters, including 10 paid and 15 reserves and volunteer personnel.

The budget total adopted by the fire board came in at $1,126,900 and was down slightly from the $1,146,170 figure from the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

Mello said the decrease was due in part to an equipment purchase that was included in the budget last year but not this year.

"Our operating budget, our general fund, is all drawn from property tax revenue," Mello explained. "We get no sales tax revenue, we're not part of the city."

A tax override that was put in place about 20 years ago brings in additional funds, with residents billed five cents per square foot for a single-family residence.

"That's on their tax bill," Mello said of the annual assessment. "We also do benefit from developer fees, that is 16 cents per square foot but that is all allotted for capital expenditures, for buildings and equipment."

That money has also decreased, though, coming in last year at around $15,000. This year, fire officials are anticipating an amount slightly over $19,000.

Funds from the developer fees have been as high as in the $50,000 to $60,000 range when there was a lot of construction but have declined sharply over the past few years.

"The cost of doing business is going up, but revenue is staying the same or going down," Mello said of trying to keep the department afloat in these tough economic times.

With a cost of living adjustment for employees put on hold for a couple of months, Mello said they will take a 'wait and see' approach, hoping to enact a COLA once more firm figures on tax revenues and developer fees have come in. Fire officials should have a clearer picture of that total within the next couple of weeks.

Fourre was let go just prior to the end of the fiscal year in June and Mello said everyone has worked cooperatively in the wake of that loss.

"We divided it up, I took on as many of the duties as I could, the battalion chiefs have also stepped in and we're trying to do our best," Mello said, with firefighters now also dealing with ordering supplies, handling payroll and writing up reports for the county.

Mello admitted that it's difficult trying to juggle office duties with those of firefighting, but with everyone helping to take up the slack, the arrangement will work for the time being.

The department's reserve fund is hovering around $700,000 and Mello said they hope to get through this year without having to dip into that fund. Some of the reserve was recently used to pay off a water tender so the district could be free of debt service on that vehicle.

Reserve and volunteer firefighters put in time at the station to supplement the fulltime paid staff, which includes A shift Battalion Chief Randy Reid and firefighters Cassidy Bohannon and Ryan Burr; B shift Battalion Chief Terry Pinheiro and firefighters Matt Herrero and Gerardo Preciado and C shift Battalion Chief Joe Pelot with firefighters Mo Silva and Mike Rebensdorf.

Each battalion chief also handles an area of expertise; Reid oversees equipment and facilities, Pinheiro does safety and fire inspections and Pelot is in charge of training.